A classic Irrawaddy River cruise: from Mandalay to Bagan

A river cruise down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan is one of the most memorable journeys you can make through Myanmar by boat. Here is our guide on how best to arrange your Burmese river cruise and the sights you can expect to see along the way.
Ship on the river Irrawaddy on the road to Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock
Ship on the river Irrawaddy on the road to Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock

From Mandalay, the classic way to travel south to the spectacular ruins of Bagan is via the Irrawaddy, the old 'Road to Mandalay' as the British dubbed Myanmar’s greatest river.


Arranging an Irrawaddy River cruise

A range of tour operators offer luxury cruises as part of their holiday packages. These vary in price and quality, depending on the vessel used. They usually last between one and three nights, with stops at places of interest along the route. There are plenty of boat styles available, from the old 'double-decker' steamers to sleek, boutique-style teak cruisers and less ritzy ferries. For a more luxurious trip, you can book yourself onto an upscale 43-berth liner, complete with a swimming pool and on-board spa. 


Insight Guides' local experts can help you plan and book your trip to Myanmar, including a cruise down the Irrawaddy. Get in touch and let us know your ideas for the trip and travel preferences. We will then create an itinerary especially to meet your requirements, which you can amend until it's exactly how you want it. Take inspiration from our existing itineraries and bear in mind that they can all be fully customised to meet your specific requirements. 


Time-pressed travellers can get a great taster of a cruise down the Irrawaddy by taking a one-hour boat tour from Mandalay to Mingun, included as part of Insight Guides' Myanmar Highlights trip

Ship on the river Irrawaddy, Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock


En route to Bagan

After leaving the environs of Mandalay, this 36-km (20-mile) stretch of river passes through one of the most cultured places in the world. Modern civilisation has largely bypassed this region, where the spiritual wealth is felt in the kyaungs of the Sagaing valleys, which have been preserved over centuries. 


Between Inwa and Sagaing, the river flows under the Ava (Inwa) bridge, which runs across the road and railway line to Myitkyina. The bridge was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1954. At present, this bridge and one at Pyay are the only bridges to cross the Irrawaddy along its entire 2,170-km (1,350-mile) length. Shortly after navigating this part of the river’s treacherous shoals, boats pass the confluence with the Mu river that drains from Sagaing province.


Yandabo and the Bamar heartland

Boats travel on to Yandabo, where the treaty that ceded Assam, Rakhaing and Tanintharyi to the British was signed in 1825. Yandabo, which can only be accessed by river, is well-known for its terracotta pottery, which is made with the yellow mud collected from the river bank. 


Once the boat heads south again, the heartland of the Bamar people lies to the east. This land south of Mandalay, which has benefitted from the irrigation of more than 2,000 years, was the breadbasket that fed the various Burmese kingdoms. Its surplus permitted the development of the advanced civilisation that started with the First Burmese Empire in the 11th century.


Pakokku gateway to western Myanmar

Passing Myingyan during the dry season, one can feel the dust and heat that bakes this part of the country where rain is scarce. Eventually, you will reach Pakokku – the gateway to western Myanmar. Pakokku is worth visiting for its bustling market and workshops producing handwoven cloth and local cigars. From here you can reach Mount Victoria, which, at more than 3,000 metres (10,000ft) is the highest peak of the Rakhaing Yoma. Once past Pakokku, the jetty at Nyaung-U, the disembarking point for Bagan, is just a few kilometres away. 


The ruins of medieval Bagan are one of southeast Asia's greatest archaeological attractions. Explore them with an expert guide as part of Insight Guides' Myanmar In-depth trip


Couple of novice read a book on monastery's wall with field of ancient pagoda background in Old Bagan. Photo: ShutterstockYoung monks with the temple-strewn skyline of Bagan in the background. Photo: Shutterstock